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  • Opera in Performance—In Search of New Analytical Approaches
  • Clemens Risi (bio)

The academic treatment of operatic productions of the classical canon continues to labor primarily under the terms of debates surrounding the transition of text/score to mise-en-scène/interpretation, from page to stage. From this standpoint, the score prescribes specific rules to transpose the text into scenic action. In most cases, the unique, actual performance is not considered a worthy object of analysis. As opposed to this score-oriented approach, I will propose an approach to theorize the performative dimension of operatic productions. This approach starts from the observation that in operatic performances moments can be experienced that cannot be explained as mere translation of a prewritten text or score or as a symbolic representation of something like a dramatic role or character preimagined by a preexisting authorial figure; instead, these moments produce, first and foremost, intense corporeal reactions to what is being viewed, felt, and experienced.

Based on the premise that the performative dimension of opera is to be understood as the transitional, ephemeral, and reciprocal process between performing actors/singers and recipients, this article asks how this process can be theorized and analyzed. In my opinion, the special appeal of a performance consists in no small part of those aspects that manifest themselves in details derived from the ephemeral presence of performance—moments to which I cannot immediately assign any significance or meaning, moments when nothing other than the actual configuration of the employed materials (bodies, voices, rhythms, sounds, and tones) and their effect on the spectator is relevant, and where this material comes into existence only in the moment of performance.

In her controversial article "Music—Drastic or Gnostic?," Carolyn Abbate suggested that the discipline of musicology was founded—and to this day, still serves—as a hermeneutic discipline dealing with musical texts and decoding hidden structures and complexities. Because of this, she claims, the discipline has lost its true, original object: music as (the experience of) sound. She assumes that it is performed music (voices and sounds), and not the written score, that drives every musicologist to engage with music.1 I agree with her diagnosis; however, we [End Page 283] still lack a clear sense of how to deal with operatic experiences in a more appropriate way. At the very end of her article, Abbate gives two short examples of her experience with the object that interests her. She describes her experience attending a performance of Wagner's Meistersinger at the Metropolitan Opera with Ben Heppner as Walther von Stolzing, who lost his voice "spectacularly" when he

cracked on the high Gs and As while singing the first strophe in the first verse in the preliminary versions of the Prize Song, and at that point I made a quick calculation that he had five more strophes in two full verses in the preliminary version, and nine strophes in three verses in the final version in the last scene, in short lots more high Gs and As not even counting the act 3 quintet. This was when my eyes closed in despair. [. . .] Heppner would go on singing knowing what lay ahead. Now the other performers seemed [. . .] still to inhabit their roles in Wagner's jolly Nuremberg, while Heppner became a unique human being in a singular place and time, falling from the high wire again and again. I was transfixed not by Wagner's opera but by Heppner's heroism, and what was important was not the apperception of concealed meaning through hermeneutic alchemy [. . .] but the singular demonstration of moral courage, which, indeed, produces knowledge of something fundamentally different and of a fundamentally different kind. Perhaps one could call it drastic knowledge.2

Abbate admits in the very last paragraph of her article that there is still a problem when focusing on the experience of a performance:

This first person, this I who isn't going to forget, must be willing to walk onstage once what counts is the live performance that once took place, experienced only by those who were present. [. . .] There is no place to hide behind formalism's structural observations about works or texts. [. . .] A performance does not conceal...


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